Closer look at more recent history

Graduate student studies slave quarters; interpretation planned

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

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Staff photo by SUSAN CRATON
This photo, believed to be from the late 1800s, depicts the final two surviving slave quarters out of seven noted in an 1840 census record for St. Mary’s Manor. The building at the right fell into disrepair and was demolished some time before the 1940s. The duplex, at the left, was moved with the manor house to a site on Rosecroft Road in 1994.

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Terry P. Brock, 29, of Williamsburg, Va., a graduate student at Michigan State University, stands at the print shop at Historic St. Mary's City last month, the site where a string of slave quarters used to exist. Those slave quarters are the focus of Brock's doctoral project.

Terry P. Brock, 29, of Williamsburg, Va., walked up the path just past the Woodland Indian hamlet in Historic St. Mary's City and then stopped near the site's reconstructed print shop one cold morning last month.

"This is my study right here," he said.

Brock, a graduate student working toward a doctorate in anthropology at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich., scanned the site, which is situated on a bluff overlooking the St. Mary's River.

"It's really a beautiful space," he said.

But while that little piece of Historic St. Mary's City is designed to take visitors back to the 17th century and how a print shop business would have fit in to the world of the first English colonists in Maryland, Brock is ignoring that carefully created illusion. Instead, Brock's "study" is that same space, but 200 years after what would have been the print shop's day in the sun.

Brock's doctoral work is focused on archaeological findings from two of a string of seven slave quarters that existed on that same bluff, according to the 1840 census. The quarters were part of Dr. John Mackall Brome's estate, which included what was then called St. Mary's Manor (now the Brome Howard House). At its height, which was around 1860, just before the Civil War, the estate included 3,000 acres and numerous outbuildings, and Brome owned 57 slaves.

Over the years, the sites of two of the slave quarters were excavated by Historic St. Mary's City. The last of the seven original structures, a duplex, survives and was moved along with the Brome Howard House from its original site in 1994 to nearby Rosecroft Road. The 19th-century structures were moved to avoid confusion with the otherwise 17th-century focused site.

Due to a series of connections, including Brock's grandmother, Betty Peterkin, who lives in Solomons and is a fan of Historic St. Mary's, Brock met with Henry Miller, director of research at Historic St. Mary's City. The Michigan State graduate student told Miller that he was still searching for possible topics to study for his doctoral project.

After that visit, Miller got in touch with Brock and made him an offer that was almost too good to be true, Brock said. Archaeologists and students had collected and stored a wealth of items and information about the slave cabins associated with the Brome-Howard House. If someone could take the time to study all that data and analyze the items found associated with that era, the hope is that the surviving slave quarters could be interpreted as part of the museum's program.

"They want me to go through data that hasn't been analyzed and put together the best story I can," Brock said. "They gave me all the excavation data from five or six field seasons of archaeology."

In addition to survey date like maps, Brock has access to an abundance of ceramic, bottle glass and a variety of metal items that have been collected from the slave quarters site; "anything that anyone dropped for a couple hundred years," Brock said.

"Oftentimes, you have to go out and collect the raw data yourself," Miller said, noting that the relationship is good both for Brock and for Historic St. Mary's City. The remaining slave quarters "is a resource we have, and it's an important story. And there are relatively few quarters that have survived, so it is a rare resource," Miller said. "And I really wanted to see it properly analyzed.

"We thought it would be an ideal link-up."

Starting in 2007, Brock spent his summers at St. Mary's City, sifting through the collected information. Since August, he has been working at Historic St. Mary's City for one week out of each month. "My interest was who lived in the houses. What was their life like?" he said.

Regina Faden, executive director of Historic St. Mary's City, noted that Brock's study may seem out of line with the museum's focus on the first colonists and the Calverts and Maryland's first capital.

But the surviving slave quarters "is an important artifact of the community," Faden said last Friday. "We really want to cover St. Mary's City. It's St. Mary's over time." She noted that it gives the museum a chance to address the slavery issue and how it affected this area. And because the dwellings continued to be used after the Civil War, the archaeology should also offer clues to life after emancipation.

"Ultimately, we do want to make an exhibit there," she said of the remaining cabin now on Rosecroft Road.

"The museum has been unbelievably supportive," Brock said.

He described the scope of his work during an annual archaeology lecture held at the HSMC Visitor Center on April 7. He noted that the 1840 census shows that four family names predominated in the slave quarter rolls — Biscoe, Butler, Gough and Whalen — still common names in the area.

He referred to oral histories of those who lived in the quarters after emancipation. In February, he interviewed one local woman, Emma Hall, who lived in the former slave quarters as a child in the 1940s and 1950s and still lives nearby.

He described that conversation with Hall as the most meaningful information so far for him.

"It can be very easy for archaeologists to just focus on the stuff we find ... but, it's really helpful when you can tie it to a person or a group of people," he said.

Brock's work won't be completed for another year or two, he said.

His work so far has helped him learn how to be an archaeologist, he said. And he's been struck with how relatively recent that period in history was. "It's really far away, but not that far away at the same time ... There were people owning people. And that's complicated," he said. "There was slavery longer than there wasn't slavery in America."

Brock said his interest in African-American archaeology comes from knowing that there are so many untold stories left to uncover. Because of the situation forced on slaves "they couldn't leave a narrative of their life behind," he said.

He said he hopes that through science and archaeological analysis and, ideally, even more oral histories, some of those stories can be uncovered.